In this season with no margin of error, it wasn’t just Kentucky’s game with Vanderbilt that hung in the balance Saturday. Any realistic path to a Wildcats bowl game was on the line.
The Commodores — down 17-3 at halftime — had just kicked a field goal to pull within four points, 17-13.
Inside Commonwealth Stadium, a crowd announced at 55,030 was filled with the “here we go again” dread that has historically been so much a part of the UK football experience. There was 7:58 left, and the Kentucky offense was taking over the football at its own 34.
What to do? For UK in 2016, that equation is becoming fairly basic: When it’s winning time, it’s Benny time.
Never miss a local story.
“It was time to get money,” UK true freshman running back Benny Snell said afterward with a big smile. “All was on the line.”
So Snell ignited a ground-hugging, time-churning drive that took 6:20 off the clock by carrying eight times for 44 yards.
Stalled at the 10-yard line, the Cats settled for a field goal with 1:38 to go. That meant Kentucky had to withstand a desperate Vandy drive that ended on downs at the UK 13 with two seconds left.
Kentucky (3-3, 2-2 SEC) defeated Vanderbilt 20-13 on Saturday, keeping alive viable hopes that UK can earn its first bowl trip since the 2010 season.
The improving Wildcats defense held Vandy (2-4, 0-3) without an offensive touchdown.
On a day when UK junior-college transfer quarterback Stephen Johnson II struggled in the passing game (10 of 24 for 49 yards with one interception), Kentucky had to be able to run the ball when Vandy knew it would not pass to win the game.
Largely thanks to Snell, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound battering ram out of Westerville, Ohio, the Cats were able to do just that.
On that fateful final drive, Snell ripped off runs of 7, 4 and 12 yards. After UK senior Jojo Kemp gained 14 yards on two carries but then lost 3, it was back to Snell for runs of 5, 7, 6, 0 and 3.
Having marched Kentucky down the field, Snell was furious that his final carry ended at the Vandy 10, a yard short of what would have been a game-clinching first down. Instead, the Cats settled for an Austin MacGinnis field goal to go up seven.
“Being so close, you want to score (a touchdown),” Snell said. “We wouldn’t have had that scare we had at the end (on Vandy’s final drive). We should have scored. I was mad at myself. I just didn’t like it.”
Pretty much everyone else affiliated with UK blue was thrilled with what Snell did at the end of the game.
“I really have a lot of confidence in him for his being a true freshman,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “It’s amazing.”
Stoops said the physical running style Snell has displayed in the final quarter of all three of Kentucky’s victories this season is helping to change the personality of the UK program.
“Hard-nosed, great balance, tough runner, tough mindset, tough attitude, no B.S., that’s him,” Stoops said of Snell. “He’s here to work and win football games and get better. And I love that.”
For the game, Snell finished with 94 yards rushing on 20 carries. His workload increased after UK starting running back Boom Williams lost a fumble on the Cats’ first offensive possession of the second half. Vandy’s Taurean Ferguson took the lost fumble 22 yards for a scoop-and-score.
That cut UK’s 14-point halftime lead in half. Williams didn’t return to the game.
“I’m sure (Williams) is probably frustrated,” Stoops said. “But he put the ball on the ground and we went with the other guys and they got hot.”
Eddie Gran, who in addition to calling Kentucky’s offensive plays also coaches UK’s running backs, had seemed high on Snell from the start of training camp.
“I saw him in camp, I thought, ‘This guy, he’s really good,’” Gran said. “What he did in the game (Saturday), he was doing in camp. He’s just getting more confidence, you know? He’s huge.”
For UK, Benny Snell has become The Closer.